Telling people they have “a little bit of PTSD” is like telling people with a sunburn that they have “a little bit of a third degree burn.” Like they say in the insurance commercial, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is probably one of the most misunderstood maladies of our time, and it is certainly one of the most serious problems facing first responders. PTSD consists of a complex set of symptoms that are brought on by a traumatic event, and it can cause a person to suffer significant impairment in the ability to function in one or more areas of daily living. The problem is that, while most emergency services personnel who experience a traumatic event will never develop PTSD, most of them have either diagnosed themselves or have been led to believe that they do have PTSD.
It is true that traumatic events (in the emergency services world we call them “critical incidents”) happen, and many first responders are exposed to them frequently. It is also true that the majority of individuals exposed to a critical incident will experience at least some symptoms of critical incident stress. Another term used to identify this type of stress is post-traumatic stress. That’s where a lot of the confusion comes in, because people tend to confuse common symptoms of post-traumatic stress with PTSD; hence, someone with a few symptoms or even mild symptoms is often told that they have “a little bit of PTSD” when, in fact, they do not.
After a critical incident, people may suffer a variety of symptoms that can be classified as:
• Critical incident stress (post-traumatic stress). These symptoms may include confusion or difficulty concentrating, memory problems, gastro-intestinal issues, difficulty controlling emotions, change in eating or sleeping habits, mood swings, social withdrawal, etc. The good news is that these symptoms are usually not particularly severe, and the vast majority of people find these symptoms are gone within a week to 10 days.
• Acute Stress Disorder. Those whose symptoms do not go away within that shorter time frame should be evaluated for what is known as Acute Stress Disorder. This disorder is possible, and typically is indicated by not only the duration of symptoms, but the intensity of the symptoms. The good news is here is that “acute” means the problem is only short-term, and the symptoms are gone within 30 days.
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is obviously the most serious of the 3 stress-related disorders listed here. A legitimate diagnosis of PTSD cannot be made until at least 30 days have passed since the onset of symptoms. Beyond that, the type of event that leads to a diagnosis of PTSD is very specific, and the type and intensity level of symptoms associated with PTSD are also very specific and are found in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). The good news here is that research shows that even though all emergency services personnel are exposed to the kinds of incidents that may lead to the development of PTSD, the percentage who actually can be diagnosed with this disorder is around 12-15%, according to the National Center for PTSD.
If you are suffering from stress-related symptoms and want more information, please feel free to reach out to us by sending a message to our social media page, or through our website at callforbackup.org. Now is the time to understand what is really going on. It’s time to call for backup.